Feds ramp up Gigabit Ethernet use

By most accounts, 1999 will be the year Gigabit Ethernet will become more widely used throughout government.

Late last summer, the industry ratified a standard for this high-speed networking technology. Vendors such as Cisco Systems Inc. have begun to offer products based on this standard. Noting these developments, government agencies are beginning to install Gigabit Ethernet as their local-area network backbone technology.

Momentum for Gigabit Ethernet started increasing last year after the standard was ratified, but widespread adoption did not materialize at that time.

"Last year was a time to take a first look at Gigabit Ethernet but not really to do much with it," said Eddie Hold, analyst for enterprise infrastructure at Current Analysis Inc. "A lot of last year was spent sorting out the standards. Until that was [decided] and Cisco announced a Gigabit Ethernet product, the market wasn't willing to adopt Gigabit Ethernet. It was not a safe bet."

But now agencies such as Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Berkeley, Calif., and the Army's Redstone Arsenal, Ala., have committed to Gigabit Ethernet. Users have a range of Gigabit Ethernet products from which to choose to achieve greater performance without encountering a steep learning curve.

"It's a relatively cheap solution," Hold said. "It's still the same Ethernet people have been playing with for years. Network managers feel comfortable with it."

Ted Sopher, network manager at the Energy Department's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, said those who do not have unique needs. "If people aren't going to Gigabit Ethernet, either they don't have the bandwidth needs or they will be out of the mainstream," Sopher said. "Overall, government agencies will stay with the cost-effectiveness and performance of Gigabit Ethernet."

Cheaper, Faster, Easier

Operating at speeds up to 1,000 megabits/sec, Gigabit Ethernet offers a tenfold performance boost over its closest relative, Fast Ethernet, which operates at 100 megabits/sec. Gigabit Ethernet also is less expensive to operate and manage and less complex than Asynchronous Transfer Mode (ATM), a high-speed transmission technology better suited for wide-area connections, according to proponents.

The Gigabit Ethernet Alliance, a group of companies offering these products, believes the initial applications for their products will be for campuses or buildings requiring more bandwidth among routers, switches, hubs and servers.

Ease of use played a role in Redstone Arsenal's decision to move to Gigabit Ethernet, said Bob Nance, network administrator at the arsenal and a subcontractor with Amtech Corp.

"There are at least 500 nodes here, plus some we don't know about, so we get called constantly [for tech support]," Nance said. "When it came to ATM, we didn't have enough manpower. We wanted something that would be easy to support."

Redstone Arsenal tests weapons systems for the Army using computer simulation and modeling applications. Olin Yancey, network administrator for the Redstone Technical Test Center, said the organization needed "the biggest pipe; the best data rates we could get with the money we had at hand."

Although the facility considered ATM when it was weighing its options six months ago, it could only afford ATM running at 622 megabits/sec - a speed that did not meet the arsenal's needs. Instead, the arsenal decided to install a Big Iron 4000 switch from Foundry Networks Inc. in the core of its network, which interconnects at least 10 of the facility's test centers via Gigabit Ethernet. A Foundry Turbo Iron switch connects three test areas via Gigabit Ethernet and feeds into the Big Iron switch.

Elsewhere, the Energy Department's Brookhaven National Laboratory, Long Island, N.Y., is using Gigabit Ethernet to support its Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC) program, which aims to replicate on a smaller scale a state of matter that has not existed since microseconds after the big bang.

The lab's gigabit network infrastructure transfers massive amounts of raw data from the collider to a computer facility that will convert the raw data into usable data. Gigabit Ethernet switches supplied by Packet Engines Inc. and Alteon Networks Inc. connect six large file servers, which collect the data, to high-performance storage systems, which store the data for computation.

"What led us into Gigabit Ethernet was the bandwidth requirements with the RHIC experiment," said Terry Healy, network analyst at Brookhaven. Although the original plan three and a half years ago called for ATM instead of Gigabit Ethernet, "the economic changes and the simplicity factor of Gigabit Ethernet weighed heavily into" the decision to use Gigabit Ethernet, Healy said.

Kevin Sheehan, director of product marketing at Gigabit Ethernet vendor Packet Engines Inc., said falling prices will probably contribute to faster deployment of the technology. Gigabit Ethernet solutions can range from $1,200 to $4,500 per port, depending on the features of the switch. Network interface cards cost $500 to $1,200, he said.

An ATM Alternative?

"Gigabit Ethernet presents a whole new value proposition that [agencies] can't ignore," said Terry Rolon, regional systems engineer in the Mid-Atlantic region for Foundry Networks. "The Ethernet side is looking to be an order of magnitude less expensive [than ATM] for the campus, so whether you're an ATM bigot or not, you at least owe it to your organization to check Gigabit Ethernet out."

ATM supporters generally view ATM as more secure and reliable than Ethernet and as a good technology for integrating voice into data networks. However, ATM remains expensive to install, configure and operate, Rolon said. "People will have to justify why they are sticking with ATM," he said. "I think the explosion year for Gigabit Ethernet is 1999 or early 2000 on the government side."

"We see Gigabit Ethernet as a significantly bigger market with much more interest from government customers [than ATM]," said Bob Deutsch, systems engineering director at Cisco Systems Federal Operations.

"A fairly typical government network this calendar year would be switched 10/100 Ethernet to the desktop, Gigabit Ethernet in the backbone and, looking toward the end of the year, Gigabit Ethernet to very fast, powerful servers," according to Deutsch.

He said Cisco's strength lies in its ability to offer a wide range of hardware and software products, including the Catalyst 6000 family.

Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory is a Cisco customer. "Our vision is very clear," lab network manager Sopher said. "We will have a backbone switch which will have gigabit feeds out to the routers. By the end of this year, I'll have the backbone rebuilt with all Gigabit Ethernet feeds."

The lab will upgrade to the Cisco 8540 Gigabit Ethernet switch as soon as the product is "ready for prime time," Sopher said.

This upgrade will enable the lab, which plans to run many simultaneous video streams over the network, to expand Gigabit Ethernet to the wiring closets.

Sopher said he considered ATM. "But every time we do an analysis, we come up with the same thing: In the LAN environment, ATM doesn't look like it's necessary," he said. "From a pragmatic point of view, we don't have to retrain our group on Gigabit Ethernet."

Security of ATM's Role

Still, it appears unlikely that Gigabit Ethernet will replace ATM, said Barry Morris, director of federal operations at Nortel Networks, which recently acquired Bay Networks Inc.

"There are requirements today that dictate the use of ATM and requirements that dictate the use of Gigabit Ethernet," he said. "Our philosophy is we offer both technologies."

The company offers its BayStack 450 and 350 products, which provide 10/100 megabits/sec to the desktop and Gigabit Ethernet down the backbone. The Accelar routing switches also support Gigabit Ethernet.

Other companies, such as Fore Systems Inc., believe ATM and Gigabit Ethernet complement each other. The company's ESX 2400 and 4800 switches support Gigabit Ethernet and ATM uplinks.

ATM probably will stay popular within Defense Department agencies, said Bob Goldstein, the federal solutions marketing manager at Cabletron Systems. "I think ATM will continue to be widely deployed in tactical situations and on ships," he said. "We will see Gigabit Ethernet emerge as a lower-cost alternative for military installations with less-aggressive sets of networking needs."

Cabletron provides ATM and Gigabit Ethernet offerings, including the SmartSwitch routers, which support both networking technologies.

Craig Booth, national accounts manager at 3Com Corp., said a standard that would support Gigabit Ethernet over copper wiring is expected to be ratified this spring, but it is not expected to have much of an impact in the federal government.

"Most people are running fiber, not copper, in the risers," he said. "I think that standard will come into play when we run Gigabit Ethernet to the desktop. But I think we're still a few years away from Gigabit Ethernet to the desktop."

Some forward-thinking customers have begun to move toward Gigabit Ethernet to the desktop. The Agriculture Department's National Agricultural Statistics Service is beta testing newly purchased 3Com CoreBuilder 9000 switches. Gigabit Ethernet will connect all five of NASS' wiring closets - with about 150 nodes each - to the network core.

"The switches are in, the connections are made, and we are installing Category 5 cabling to give everyone the capability of doing 100 megabits per second to the desktop," said Wayne Wandel, network administrator at NASS.

Gigabit Ethernet will replace NASS' 10 megabits/sec Ethernet LAN running on a Fiber Distributed Data Interface backbone.

"We wanted to go to Gigabit Ethernet to reduce network congestion and eliminate translation between Ethernet and FDDI, and for higher speed," Wandel said. "Gigabit Ethernet is plug and play and requires very little configuration."

***

STATUS: With standards-based products for Gigabit Ethernet solutions beginning to appear on the market, agencies have begun using the technology in their local-area network backbones. Vendors expect the market to explode in the next two years.

ISSUES: Agencies are determining how Gigabit Ethernet can fit into their infrastructures alongside other networking technologies. Many have found Gigabit Ethernet to be a less-expensive and easier-to-use alternative to Asynchronous Transfer Mode technology for LAN backbones.

OUTLOOK: Excellent. Early adopters report that their Gigabit Ethernet networks have been technically efficient and cost-effective. A forthcoming standard for transmitting Gigabit Ethernet over copper wire is expected to make it feasible to deploy the technology directly to users' desktops.

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